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Reactive Parenting – What It Is & How To Overcome

| Causes | Effects | How to stop reactive parenting |

What is reactive parenting

Reactive parenting is parenting based on an intense emotional reaction to a child’s misbehavior. This parenting style usually leads to frequent punitive punishment and aggression in both the parent and the child.

A reactive parent reacts with anger, frustration, or fear. They can explode out of frustration hurting their children emotionally and damaging the parent-child relationship. 

What causes reactive parenting

Researchers have found that three elements can affect which parenting style a parent uses. They are:

  1. Child’s characteristics,
  2. Parent’s personality, and
  3. Parent’s psychological well-being

Together, these three factors are strong predictors of the type of parenting used​1​.

Families with reactive parents usually have temperamentally difficult children​2​.

Some reactive parents tend to have a dysfunctional attributional style. Often, they attribute the child’s misbehavior to malicious intent. This perspective difference can have a significant impact on how parents respond​3​.

Parents who believe their whiny children are spoiled, for example, will respond harsher than non-reactive parents who believe their whiny kids are just tired.

A parent who lacks self-regulation and who believes their child misbehaves on purpose then responds intensely with negative emotions to their child’s bad behavior​4​.

reactive mom is angry daughter breaks a vase

Effects of reactive parenting

Using a reactive approach to parenting can damage the parent-child relationship. It is also one of the most significant and consistent parenting factors associated with child abuse and psychopathology.

It does NOT mean that if you’re a reactive parent, then you much abuse your child. It means if you have an intense emotional response to child behavior, pay attention to the interactions. Then take steps to prevent them from worsening​5​.

However, when parental reactive negativity is left unaddressed, it may result in maladjustment of children. Over-reactive parenting dysregulates children’s behavior​6​ and reinforces their oppositional behavior​7​.

A parent’s reactivity can also serve as a negative example of how to control one’s emotions. 

How to stop reactive parenting

Do not lose faith in your parenting ability. Parents are empowered to make changes and avoid parenting reactively.

Here are some practical strategies to help you stop hostile, over-reactive parenting.

Spend time on self-care

You probably have heard this a million times – put on your oxygen mask before helping your child. It is one of the best things you can do for your family. It is important to take care of yourself in order to be able to take care of the people you love most​8​.

Parenting is hard. The stress and pressure can take a toll on you.

Some people think that self-care is just about pampering themselves but it’s not. 

Self-care is about taking good care of yourself so you don’t burn out and you can be the best support for your family. 

You don’t have to take on a long-term goal like “be healthy” which can be daunting. Start with small steps. Listen to one song, read one chapter in your favorite book, or take a short walk to the mailbox. No matter how busy you are, set aside time to do something that helps you relax. Make it a part of your parenting routine.

By focusing on self-care, you improve your mental health, which also impacts your ability to self-regulate and how you handle a negative situation​9,10​.

Shift your attributional mindset

It can be upsetting for anyone if they assume a child’s negative behavior is ill-intentioned, but it can be especially difficult for over-reactive parents.

Shift your mindset and think positively about your child. This will also prevent your stress response system from going into a fight-or-flight mode​11​.

Be mindful of your negative ingrained reactions. By thinking positively about your child, you will also act more compassionately, teaching your child to have empathy for others. Identify your triggers and their relationship to childhood

Stress causes people to do things they are familiar with. Stressed parents may parent in the same way they were raised.

Reactive parents are likely to have reactive parents of their own​12​.

See if you can identify the triggers of your explosive emotions when your child misbehaves by examining yourself and your childhood. Having this insight will help you avoid being controlled by triggers and recognize them when they appear.

Attune to de-escalate

Emotional attunement is one of the fastest and most effective ways to de-escalate a conflict​13​.

All of us want to be loved and heard. Children are no different.

When you are emotionally attuned, your child will feel that you understand them. Your child will feel accepted. Being attuned doesn’t mean you have to agree with them. Rather, it means you get them.

Do this by being attentive and aware of their feelings. Be expressive. Tell them you have listened and paid attention to them by using words, facial expressions, and body language to reflect what you see in them.

For example, if they are upset, you can frown and stress, “You are very upset.”

All your child needs sometimes is a hug and the assurance that you understand and everything will be fine. 

Attunement is also a powerful way to connect with your child​14​. By building a strong relationship, you are more likely to avoid fights and conflicts.

Pick your battles

Take a step back and re-evaluate what you are fighting about in your daily lives. Sometimes we get so hung up on our rules that we forget what’s truly important in life.

Does it make sense to cause an emotional stir and take a toll on your mental health to get them to take out the garbage or leave their dirty shoes outside?

Asking them twenty times before they do it can be exhausting. But what will matter more in twenty years – garbage cleared or a good relationship with your child?

Be consistent

Inconsistency in parenting is a common parenting trap that can lead to anger and resentment. If you do not set clear rules and enforce them consistently, things will be chaotic.

Avoid empty threats. Name a consequence you are prepared to enforce, and then follow through on it.

Final thoughts on reactive parenting

Non-reactive parenting requires practice and patience. Follow the steps and allow yourself to make mistakes from time to time. The key is not to let this become your autopilot reaction.

References

  1. 1.
    Belsky J. The Determinants of Parenting: A Process Model. Child Development. Published online February 1984:83. doi:10.2307/1129836
  2. 2.
    Martorell GA, Bugental DB. Maternal variations in stress reactivity: Implications for harsh parenting practices with very young children. Journal of Family Psychology. Published online 2006:641-647. doi:10.1037/0893-3200.20.4.641
  3. 3.
    Bugental DB, Shennum WA, Shaver P. “Difficult” Children as Elicitors and Targets of Adult Communication Patterns: An Attributional-Behavioral Transactional Analysis. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development. Published online 1984:1. doi:10.2307/1165910
  4. 4.
    .. Handbook of Parenting: Being and Becoming a Parent. Erlbaum; 2002.
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    Deater-Deckard K, Sewell MD, Petrill SA, Thompson LA. Maternal Working Memory and Reactive Negativity in Parenting. Psychol Sci. Published online November 23, 2009:75-79. doi:10.1177/0956797609354073
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    Chang L, Schwartz D, Dodge KA, McBride-Chang C. Harsh Parenting in Relation to Child Emotion Regulation and Aggression. Journal of Family Psychology. Published online 2003:598-606. doi:10.1037/0893-3200.17.4.598
  7. 7.
    Patterson GR. Performance models for parenting: A social interactional perspective. In: Parenting and Children’s Internalization of Values: A Handbook of Contemporary Theory. John Wiley & Sons Inc.; 1997:193–226.
  8. 8.
    Coyne LW, Gould ER, Grimaldi M, Wilson KG, Baffuto G, Biglan A. First Things First: Parent Psychological Flexibility and Self-Compassion During COVID-19. Behav Analysis Practice. Published online May 6, 2020:1092-1098. doi:10.1007/s40617-020-00435-w
  9. 9.
    Mikkelsen K, Stojanovska L, Polenakovic M, Bosevski M, Apostolopoulos V. Exercise and mental health. Maturitas. Published online December 2017:48-56. doi:10.1016/j.maturitas.2017.09.003
  10. 10.
    Oaten M, Cheng K. Longitudinal gains in self-regulation from regular physical exercise. British Journal of Health Psychology. Published online November 2006:717-733. doi:10.1348/135910706×96481
  11. 11.
    Bugental DB, Corpuz R. Parental Attributions. Handbook of Parenting. Published online February 1, 2019:722-761. doi:10.4324/9780429433214-21
  12. 12.
    Bridgett DJ, Burt NM, Edwards ES, Deater-Deckard K. Intergenerational transmission of self-regulation: A multidisciplinary review and integrative conceptual framework. Psychological Bulletin. Published online May 2015:602-654. doi:10.1037/a0038662
  13. 13.
    Woltering S, Lishak V, Elliott B, Ferraro L, Granic I. Dyadic Attunement and Physiological Synchrony During Mother-Child Interactions: An Exploratory Study in Children With and Without Externalizing Behavior Problems. J Psychopathol Behav Assess. Published online February 24, 2015:624-633. doi:10.1007/s10862-015-9480-3
  14. 14.
    Haft WL, Slade A. Affect attunement and maternal attachment: A pilot study. Infant Mental Health Journal. 1989;10(3):157-172.

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